China’s Shenzhou-13 spacecraft with three Chinese astronauts on board on Saturday docked at its space station, marking a record six-month stay as the country moves toward completing the new orbital outpost.
The spacecraft was launched with a Long March-2F rocket at 12:23 a.m. Saturday, and linked up with the Tianhe core module at the Tiangong Space Station at 6:56 a.m., about six and a half hours later.
The two men and a woman are the second crew members to move to the space station, which was launched last April. The first crew stayed three months.
The new crew includes two space travel veterans. Zhai Zhigang, 55, Wang Yaping, 41, and Ye Guangfu, 41, make their first flight into space.
They are bid farewell by a military band and supporters sing an anthem for the motherland, underlining the weight of national pride invested in the space program, which has advanced rapidly in recent years.
The crew will perform three spacewalks to install equipment in preparation for the expansion of the station; Evaluate living conditions in the Tianhe Unit and conduct experiments in space medicine and other fields.
China’s military-run space program plans to send multiple crews to the station over the next two years to make it fully operational.
Upon completion of the addition of two more sections named Mengtian and Wentian, the station will weigh about 66 tons, which is much smaller than the International Space Station, which launched its first module in 1998 and weighs about 450 tons.
Two more Chinese units are scheduled to be launched before the end of next year during the stay of the as-yet-unnamed Shenzhou-14 crew.
China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday renewed its commitment to cooperate with other countries in the peaceful use of space.
Spokesperson Zhao Lijian said sending humans into space was a common cause of humanity. He said China will continue to expand the depth and breadth of international cooperation and exchanges in manned spaceflight and make positive contributions to exploring the secrets of the universe.
China has been excluded from the International Space Station in large part due to US objections to the secretive nature of the Chinese program and close military ties, which led it to launch two experimental modules before starting on the permanent station.
US law requires congressional approval for communication between the US and Chinese space programs, but China is cooperating with space experts from other countries including France, Sweden, Russia and Italy. Chinese officials said they look forward to hosting astronauts from other countries aboard the space station once it is fully operational.
China has launched seven manned missions with a total of 14 astronauts aboard two, and it has flown twice since 2003, when it became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to send a person into space on its own.
China has also expanded its work on moon and Mars exploration, including landing a rover on the far side of the little-explored moon, and returning lunar rocks to Earth for the first time since the 1970s.
This year, China also landed its Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose companion Jurong rover has been exploring evidence of life on the Red Planet.
Other Chinese space programs call for collecting soil from the asteroid and returning additional lunar samples. China has also expressed an aspiration to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there, although no timetable has been proposed for such projects. A top-secret space plane is reportedly being developed.
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